One of my favorite things about Cuyamaca Rancho State Park is its extensive, interconnected network of trails that lets you make hikes as long or as short as you like. If you just want to bag a peak, you can do it as a quick out and back. If you want to do a long, meandering route that includes a peak, you can do that too. We had previously hiked Oakzanita Peak as a simple out and back, and found it to have outstanding views with considerably fewer people than the more popular Stonewall Peak. We decided to revisit Oakzanita but make a longer hike out of it and ended up with this 9.2 mile loop.
We started at the Oakzanita staging area right at the southern edge of the park’s boundary on Highway 79. From the northern edge of the turnout, we took the Lower Descanso Creek Trail heading east.
The trail led uphill through tangled oaks and brush.
We crossed a dry portion of Descanso Creek, and continued gradually uphill on the other side.
The trail travelled northeast, roughly paralleling the course of the creek. In a few spots we even saw some pooled water remaining.
Much of the trail along the creek was shaded by towering oaks.
Around .6 mile we came to a “T” junction with the East Mesa Fire Road and turned right.
The fire road led us around an open field, then started uphill again.
At .7 mile we found the turn off for the Upper Descanso Creek Trail on our right and took it.
This led us to another dry crossing of Descanso Creek.
Then it was once again uphill.
At first we had more lovely oaks near the course of the creek.
But as the trail began to wind its way up the mountain the trees receded. We were surrounded by a thick carpet of chapparal.
As we climbed we gained fantastic views of the surrounding area, including Cuyamaca Peak, Middle Peak, and Stonewall Peak.
The trail took us all the way around to the western flank of Oakzanita Peak. Around 2.25 miles we found the turn-off for the summit trail and turned right.
A series of switchbacks, just a bit longer than half a mile, took us up the chamise and manzanita covered slope.
At 2.8 miles we reached the rocky summit, where we had fantastic panoramic views.
We found a summit register in a large, white plastic bottle, and signed in, then hung around for a while enjoying the quiet morning. When we were ready to continue we retraced our route to the previous junction, and turned right to continue on the Oakzanita Trail.
We found one downed tree on the trail we had to crawl under, but otherwise it was easy going.
We had a lovely mix of oak trees, ceanothus, and dry grassy fields around us.
We started to find some pine saplings along the trail that appeared to be part of a replanting effort.
Around 4.25 miles we came to a “T” junction where we once again met up with the East Mesa Fire Road. If you want a shorter loop, you can turn left here and start heading back toward the parking area. We were aiming for longer excursion today, so turned right.
The wide dirt road continued leading us northeast.
Around 5 miles we came to a “Y” junction and turned left onto the Grass Trail.
The trail climbed gently uphill.
Near the top of the hill, in the shade of a stand of pine trees, we spotted an enormous flock of turkeys foraging in the grass. They were wary of us and kept their distance.
We left the turkeys to their business and continued onward.
Around 5.1 miles we came to another “Y” junction and took the left fork onto the Harvey Moore Trail.
We crossed a huge, grassy expanse.
We found ourselves heading west, and once again had some lovely views of Cuyamaca, Middle, and Stonewall Peaks to enjoy.
At 6.15 miles we passed the junction for the Dyar Spring Trail on our right, and continued straight along the Harvey Moore Trail.
The trail led us gradually down hill through more ceanothus, buckwheat, and oaks.
We passed another turn-off around 7.2 miles, this one for the Pine Trail, but once again continued straight.
Finally, around 7.5 miles, we found the junction we were looking for, and turned left onto the Oak Trail. We had passed this junction numerous times in the past but this was our first time actually hiking this trail. It was exciting, as only other hiking nerds like you, Dear Reader, can understand.
The trail descended quickly into a thick, oak forest. The tree trunks were blackened in places, and the vegetation was thick.
We found ourselves paralleling the course of a dry stream bed.
Around 8.1 miles the beautiful Oak Trail came to an end as it met the East Mesa Fire Road, where we turned right.
We made our way down the wide road as it continued gradually downhill.
We passed the Upper Descanso Creek Trail where we had begun our loop, and continued on to the Lower Descanso Creek Trail around 8.5 miles. We followed the Lower Descanso Creek Trail back to our car.
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Take I-8 East to the CA-79 N/Japatul Valley Road exit. Turn left and follow 79 north (towards Julian). After 2.7 miles, there is a sharp left to stay on 79 – make sure not to miss this turn (follow signs for 79 and Cuyamaca Rancho State Park). Continue on 79 for about 6 more miles. The trail head parking is on the right immediately beyond the large “Cuyamaca Rancho State Park” entrance sign. map
||Dogs not allowed
||Bikes only allowed on limited segments
For more information, visit:
View route or download GPX from CalTopo
California State Parks – Cuyamaca Rancho State Park